Planes: Getting the Most Legroom for the Money

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Airlines now offer five confusing classes of seating. Here's a primer on each, along with tips on using credit card miles to get the most space for the least money.

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Recently, American Airlines announced it was creating an additional class of seating called Main Cabin Extra – a basic economy seat, but with a little more legroom. American has joined United and other airlines that now have as many as five different classes of seating on their aircraft. What’s the deal with all of these different types of seats? And more importantly, how can I use my credit card perks and points to get the most legroom for the least cash?

Here are the five classes of seating, and how you can score the best deal…

  1. Economy, also known as Coach, Steerage, and Cattle Class. This is your standard seat in the back of the plane, and it varies slightly from airline to airline. Before I book a flight and select a seat, I always consult this website: Seat Guru. It lets me find the best “seat pitch,” which is the amount of room between seats. Southwest leads the pack with a 33-inch standard seat pitch, while Spirit offers a knee-crunching 28 inches on some planes. Most major carriers offer 31 inches. If you’re stuck in this class, the best you can do is use a credit card like the United Explorer card from Chase to receive priority boarding, so you’ll at least have room left in overhead bins to stow all of your carry-ons.
  2. Economy Plus, also known as Economy Comfort and Main Cabin Extra. These newer classifications are generally the same seats as economy, just with more legroom. United was the first to offer what it calls Economy Plus seating to the top-tier elites in their frequent flier program, while mere mortals are often given the chance to upgrade to these seats at check-in (for a price, of course). Meanwhile, Delta and American will automatically upgrade customers who pay with full-fare tickets. Holders of the American Express Platinum can use their $200-a-year annual fee credit to pay for upgrades, and that amount should cover a handful.
  3. Domestic First Class, not to be confused with real International First Class. Whether you’re flying from New York City to L.A. or just to Buffalo, it’s likely that your aircraft will have a few wider seats up front that it calls First Class. While these seats are better than coach, the service is often not much different. On several recent, four-hour-long Domestic First Class flights with Delta and United, I was only offered crackers as a meal. Nevertheless, the large seat is a luxury that some are willing to pay for, while others can be upgraded when they reach airline status. Fortunately, some cards like the Delta SkyMiles Platinum and Reserve cards from American Express offer status-earning miles so that you can earn upgrades sooner. I just used my miles for Business Class International awards and was given Domestic First Class seats for my connecting flights within the United States.
  4. International Business Class. Last year, I flew my family on Lufthansa to a vacation in Italy. We traveled in Business, and our 4-year-old daughter now expects every plane to have seats turn into beds with the press of a button. Of course, adults who travel in Business Class are equally spoiled and have a tough time going back to Coach, no matter how much legroom they add. Great food, service, and sleeper seats actually make Business Class a frugal way to fly. To enjoy International Business Class on your next flight overseas, rake in as many credit card points and miles as possible. I earn points by using my credit card for daily spending and receiving a generous sign-up bonus from time to time. Once earned, I use some of my 6 Tips for Getting the Most From Your Frequent Flier Miles.
  5. International First Class. With one look, you’ll never again confuse a true International First Class seat with Domestic First Class. It features lie-flat seats, world-class dining, and “amenity kits” that often include pajamas. International First is offered by United, American, and many foreign carriers. Don’t expect to ever be upgraded to International First Class, no matter what your status. To get there, you either need to buy a $10,000 ticket or earn some serious miles. American offers International First Class awards to Europe for 125,000 miles. Start with their AAdvantage card from Citi, and you can earn 40,000 miles as a sign-up bonus – enough to get you started on your quest for the best.

By using your credit cards creatively, you can join the spoiled ranks of travelers like me who never leave the country in Coach.

Stacy Johnson

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